Thom Yorke: Radiohead & Trading Solo (Book Review)
The task facing author Trevor Baker when he embarked on a mission to cover the life and work of Radiohead's frontman, armed only with back issues of Q and Melody Maker, telephone numbers for some of Thom Yorke's old Exeter Uni buddies and an internet connection, was an unenviable one.
Granted no access to the man himself or his bandmates, it was always going to be difficult to convey a real sense of 'being there', or even 'getting it', particularly with a personality as complex as the Radiohead singer's. No surprises (!), perhaps, that the end result isn't an especially illuminating read. The internal machinations of Radiohead as a band over the years is - for this writer, and many others - one of the most interesting topics in contemporary music, but in this book Baker is relegated to the role of touchline speculator. It's kind of like having a conversation about Thom Yorke with your mates in the pub, and then blogging about it afterwards.
Basically, Radiohead: Thom Yorke & Trading Solo doesn't tell you much you didn't already know - even if you're not a long-term follower of the band, this is a story that's been oft told. They wrote a song called 'Creep', it got them famous, but they didn't like it, so they made another couple of amazing guitar-oriented records before making some weirder ones and then... come on, you know this bit. And attempting to get inside the head of the man who did all this - the book's main premise - was kind of doomed from the outset by his refusal to talk. Maybe that's why Baker sort of gives up halfway through and resorts to merely (re)telling the Radiohead story.
There's the occasional interesting or surprising factoid, like how a young Thom decided he wanted to be a rock guitarist after hearing Queen's Brian May, or how the mixing for debut album Pablo Honey was completed without the band's presence (or even approval), but those are few and far between. And if you're the kind of person who checks Radiohead fan sites on a daily basis, they're mostly old news. Still, you might be amused to learn that Yorke used to regularly drop 'Push It' by Salt-N-Pepa in his University DJing days. I was.
That Baker didn't get any first hand access wouldn't necessarily be a problem here; there are many examples of fantastic unauthorised biographies throughout the history of music literature (see: Hammer Of The Gods and Captain Beefheart, for starters), but the main issue with this book is that the author's voice isn't a strong one. His analysis ranges from stating the obvious ("He'd never liked supporting other bands as much as playing headline shows" - really? How odd for an aspiring superstar...), and reiterating the general consensus (on In Rainbows: "They fought the music industry... and won") to the plain bizarre: "Most bands, whether or not they wear leather jackets, seem to have leather jackets under their skin".
Great biography writers either tell old stories in a new and compelling way, or reinterpret commonly held viewpoints and take myths/legends to task. This does neither, and is thus utterly non-essential for band aficionados. And as a first entry point for curious 'Head virgins, the quality of the writing, and the insight of the background information, isn't sufficiently better than a lot of the material available, gratis, via the internet. So if you're interested in doing some background reading in the light of this week's re-issues, that's probably a better starting point.